The dark side of the Crossword Business

Before I get to the copyright issues, a post on our initiation into the darker side of the crossword business which is no different than any other business – warts and all. The contents of this post will not be surprising to anyone who has done any competitive business in any field but some may be surprised at such things going on in what is considered to be a fairly harmless and highly intellectual pastime.

When we started Litsoft, we were a bunch of naive, idealists with very little exposure to doing business but with a passion for solving crosswords and a passion for programming. We saw the emerging online market for content and were overjoyed with the prospect of the crosswords being online.

The New York Times had taken the lead in being the first to get into this digital area in a serious fashion and had started to put out the crosswords in electronic format using a vendor who had the leading boxed-set crosswords software in the market. The same software with slight modifications was made available for online distribution and the puzzles provided in the format used by that software.

But there were problems with that delivery system, some of which were peculiar to the technology at the time and some inherent to the design itself. The system didn’t translate well from the boxed-set distribution with a finite set of crosswords that the program could be tested with before release, to online publication of new crosswords where the program would encounter crosswords it had never seen before. It was not uncommon to see the program crash for some puzzles or the puzzles have missing clues or have the grid numbering mismatch the clues, etc.

The reasons ranged from bugs in the software that were triggered for certain unexpected conditions in the puzzles to the production of the crosswords themselves. For example, human error in translating the puzzles from the copy used by the printed paper. Or even something as simple as the files ftp’ed to the servers in text mode rather than binary mode (there was a time when the former was the default!) which corrupted the binary files, etc.

Obviously, this made a lot of people unhappy including us. It is a well-kept secret in the crossword industry that solvers can be as cranky as crack addicts with withdrawal symptoms if anything comes between them and their favorite pastime. Authors/Editors have faced some of the wrath when they goof in their construction which prevents successful solving. So, we looked at the problem and set out to design an online publication system that accounted for all the things that could potentially go wrong anywhere between production and consumption. The Across (Lite) format was born out of this necessity.

It incorporated a number of things to prevent problems or at least have the problem be detected as early as possible rather than display the crossword incorrectly or worse make the program crash. Since the assumption was that anyone in the production and publication chain could make mistakes, the necessary requirements were:

  • any one should be able to create a puzzle in this format
  • the software should not depend on the integrity of the puzzle production
  • any production errors should be caught as early as possible and flagged before it gets to the publishing stage
  • the final output puzzle file should be devoid of puzzle inconsistencies in cluing or numbering and
  • if the file did get corrupted during transmission or due to platform differences, it should be easily detected by the software to provide a meaningful message rather than behave unpredictably or worse crash.

The stability of the format based on that design criteria has proven itself over the years and is the primary reason behind the widespread use. We can take some credit for lowering the average blood pressure in the solving community over the years.

We built the first version of Across Lite for many different platforms (at some point there were about 8 or so operating systems covered) and available free for anyone to download and use. We never considered doing this as a business.

When NYT became aware of this product and many of their subscribers started to talk about using Across Lite primarily to avoid the software problems, they approached us and asked if they could use this software for online distribution. Our internal reaction was pretty much “you want to pay us for this?”. That is how business-”savvy” we were.

The main motivation for NYT was simply avoiding production, delivery and consumption problems and also that it was available on multiple platforms. Not feature-by-feature comparisons. Frankly, the 1.0 version of Across Lite was rather clunky (to make it possible to implement on almost every platform). Most users didn’t know the stability motivations at all nor could they appreciate the design to support the production. We were simply not prepared for the huge uproar it created when the switch happened.

It was a combination of things – crossword solvers tend to be fairly conservative given the demographics and hate change. Not everyone was upset with the old software and many of the people associated with the software vendor were part of the “in” crowd in the crossword community. Asking people to switch to another software which was “different” created a lot of anger understandably, that was something we could reasonably expect.

What we did not expect were some of the techniques used to try and discredit us during that difficult transition period – half-truths, distortions, lies, claims that we knew were simply untrue (e.g., complaints that our support mailbox was filled up or that the support responses had viruses in it neither of which were physically possible because of the way we had set up the mail system). It was largely due to one of our staff at the time that stayed cool and helpful in the NYT forums that many of these tactics (which usually backfire) couldn’t be sustained.

It was an unbelievably eye-opening experience of some of the ugly side of getting into a business and learning what people are capable of even in such an intellectual or “high-brow” niche area. Some people are probably amused at our naivete at the time.

The soon released v1.2 of Across Lite had so many great design features we innovated – the pen and pencil feature, the many print options including saving ink, the many layouts possible, to name a few – that it overshadowed most of the critics. The stability which made days of crashing software and missing clues extinct was finally appreciated over time and is now taken for granted.

We did learn many things about business that certainly made us much less naive. Change is difficult and long-term benefits aren’t always appreciated. Ethical and honorable behavior is not something to take for granted even from those that keep a public profile of respectability.

The second exposure to the dark side came when we provided our software to a couple of syndicates which competed with a third syndicate. We encountered more examples of the depths to which people were willing to sink to when they had to compete. Ballot stuffing, bad reviews to newspapers under fake e-mails (though some of those could be easily traced back to the source), etc. The potential anonymity that the Internet provides can make villains out of even those who are probably fine, upstanding people in real life. The only good news in these situations is that such villains also tend to be not very smart in the way they go about it and get caught with their hands in the cookie jar rather easily.

So, why am I writing about this in the blog about the crossword business? Because, we are likely on the verge of some changes in the industry that will upset the status quo to a certain extent built up over the last couple of years. It will likely affect how some solvers get access to their crosswords or solve them that will make them mad even if it is a positive change for the long-term. It will affect some business models that may make their owners nasty. New competing models will try to come out and their owners may get somewhat “aggressive” in their competition. We fully expect that we will catch some of that anger or nastiness especially if we are perceived as the reason behind one or more of those changes and predictable tactics will be employed (perhaps carried out in contemporary outlets such as the Apple App Store).

So pull up a chair and get out the popcorn – for an illustrated guide to the dark side of the business as things evolve…

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3 Responses to The dark side of the Crossword Business

  1. Quisicosa says:

    I have been a fortunate (and now I see naive) benefactor of an elegant daily crossword aggregator developed by Alex Boisvert called ‘Crossword Butler’. However last week he made an unfortunate announcement that read in part: ‘A certain website has been threatening legal action against Crossword Butler and similar apps, so I’m shutting down shop, as it were. I don’t have the stomach for a legal battle and I don’t feel like making
    a major rewrite to the code to appease litigators.’ I am saddened when I combine what I have read on this blog with Alex’s situation. Crosswords have been an important part of my sobriety for years and I certainly don’t like the prospect of having to weather changes to how I am able to access .puz files in the future.

  2. Guda says:

    Quisicosa, I have been in touch with Alex on what this communication is about and I welcome him here to clarify.

    The unfortunate choice of words in his e-mail combined with my blog posting appears to give the impression that perhaps “this website” (i.e., Litsoft) has been threatening legal action against Crossword Butler. This is not even remotely the case.

    As I have mentioned in a comment in the previous post, I will not comment on specific apps and whether there are legal and ethical issues with specific apps so as to be fair to them. My intent on the blog is to make industry issues in general, which includes legal and ethical issues public and clear as I expect the industry to evolve (or wither) because of such issues.

    The change we may be forced to weather may not be the trivial matter of methods to access the crossword files, but rather the number of crosswords available to access in any method, just to put it in perspective. It is not always obvious what is part of the problem and what is part of the solution.

  3. Alex says:

    I’m satisfied that no legal action is imminent and I’ve sent out an e-mail correction. However, I’m going to keep Crossword Butler on hiatus for a while.